Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Movsesian on Human Dignity (Rome, March 7)

logoFor those who are interested, next month I’ll be giving a faculty workshop at Università LUMSA (Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta) in Rome. The workshop, sponsored by the university’s law faculty, will take place on March 7. I’ll present my current draft, “Of Human Dignities,” a reflection on the incompatible understandings of dignity in contemporary human rights law, especially with respect to religious freedom . Details about the event are here. My talk will be in English. CLR Forum readers in Italy, please stop by and say hello!

Brett Scharffs at Law and Religion Colloquium

 

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Professor Scharffs at the Law and Religion Colloquium

This week, the Center hosted BYU Law School Professor Brett Scharffs in our biannual Colloquium on Law and Religion (above). Brett, who is BYU’s associate dean and the associate director of its magnificent International Center for Law and Religion Studies, presented his draft, “Four Models of Public Discourse and their Implications for the Public Sphere.” Brett has been a great friend of the Center for several years and we were delighted to have him with us. Next up: the University of Illinois’s Robin Fretwell Wilson (February 16).

Tradition’s Future

TP BannerAt the First Things site today, I have  post about why the future of tradition, and traditional institutions, may be brighter than we imagine. Notwithstanding the power of markets and technology to weaken tradition, I argue, the human need for stability and continuity with the past remain:

Moreover, traditions and traditional institutions have survived, and will continue to survive, because they speak to human nature. They fulfill basic human needs: family; community; a sense of belonging; an attachment to place; a link to the transcendent. Perhaps some people can do without these things, or can invent them for themselves. The Nones, I gather, think they can fashion their own religions. But most of us cannot. Most of us need the stability the past provides, the guidance of received wisdom. Some very smart people think technology is on the brink of altering human nature forever—that we are about to create a new sort of being, a transhuman hybrid of man and computer, that will inherit the future. Well, it hasn’t happened yet. For the moment, old-fashioned human nature endures; and tradition, however much we neglect or try to erase it, endures too.

Read the whole thing here.

Third Biennial Colloquium in Law and Religion Kicks off February 1

Mark and I are excited for the start of our third biennial Colloquium in Lawclr-logo1 and Religion in Spring 2016. This seminar invites leading law and religion scholars to make presentations to a small audience of students and faculty. The following speakers will be presenting:

February 1: Brett G. Scharffs (Brigham Young University School of Law)

February 16: Robin Fretwell Wilson (University of Illinois School of Law)

February 29: Robert P. George (Princeton University)

March 14: Mark Tushnet (Harvard Law School)

April 4: Justice Samuel A. Alito (United States Supreme Court)

April 18: Elizabeth H. Prodromou (Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy)

We will announce topics as sessions occur. To read more about past colloquia, please see these links:

For more information about the Spring 2016 colloquium, please contact me at degirolm@stjohns.edu or Mark at movsesim@stjohns.edu.

Annicchino on the Paradigm Shift in Human Rights

In the Italian journal, Il Foglio, our friend and sometime guest contributor Pasquale Annicchino (European University Institute) has a provocative essay, “Now America waters down religious freedom and prefers rainbow colors. Why is that?” Annicchino sees a paradigm shift in American human rights policy. Where the US once favored religious liberty, it now gives priority to personal autonomy, especially LGBT rights:

What seems to have permanently changed is the cornerstone of the American projection in its narrative on rights around the world. The White House lights up with rainbow colors in the day of the Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the right to gay marriage. There is a decline in action for religious freedom, a right that refers to groups and individuals, while a vision linked to individualism and the principle of personal autonomy is on the rise, and the rights of LGBTI people are probably the clearest example of that.

An interesting take. You can read Annicchino’s essay here.

The Play of Daniel

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James Ruff as Daniel in the Trinity Production (NYT)

Earlier this month, I had a chance to see the Gotham Early Music Scene’s production of The Play of Daniel, a medieval Christmas pageant, performed as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival at New York’s Trinity Church. The festival, which the church started several years ago, revives the idea of Christmas as a twelve-day holiday beginning on December 25 and running until Epiphany, January 6. It includes concerts and plays at Trinity and nearby St. Paul’s. I hope the organizers include this production of Daniel every year.

Students at Beauvais Cathedral in the north of France wrote Daniel, a drama based on episodes in the Old Testament book, around the year 1200. The text is a mix of Latin and Old French. The music, without rhythmical notation, survives in a manuscript at the British Library; the Trinity production rendered many of the numbers as dances. Interpolated within the biblical story are non-biblical texts, including songs that foretell the coming of Christ and even a Christmas carol of sorts, Congaudemus celebremus natalis sollempnia—“Let us together joyfully celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.” The presence of these songs, as well as some other internal evidence, suggests Daniel is meant to be performed at Christmastime.

The Trinity production was a lot of fun—the music; the costumes, inspired by pictures at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan; the acting, everything. Trinity’s Gothic Revival setting worked perfectly. Early music isn’t everyone’s thing, I know, but I think everyone would enjoy this production, including kids. There are even some laughs.

For people interested in church and state, the play has additional meaning. In the Old Testament book, King Darius’s courtiers urge him to issue an order providing that “whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Darius issues the order, but Daniel refuses to comply. “He continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” The courtiers find out and haul Daniel before Darius, who cannot take back his order, as the laws of the Medes and Persians, once proclaimed, are irrevocable. Daniel goes off to the lions, but God sends an angel to protect him. Moved, Darius frees Daniel and orders the courtiers thrown to the lions instead. They don’t fare as well.

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is pretty well known, even in our age of biblical illiteracy. But there is another church and state allusion in Daniel, more obscure today, but which contemporary audiences would surely have recognized. Daniel was written at the height of the investiture crisis, a centuries-long struggle for control of the Catholic Church that pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and other sovereigns against the papacy. Harold Berman famously dated the origins of the Western legal system, particularly legal pluralism, to the investiture crisis and what he called “the papal revolution” of the late Middle Ages. When Daniel was written, Becket’s murder was still in living memory, and the outcome of the investiture crisis was far from certain. Surely those students of Beauvais had current events in mind when they staged a drama showing what happens to courtiers who try to impose the power of the state against believers.

If you can, go and see Daniel next Christmas. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here is a video of this year’s performance from Trinity’s website.

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics (2d ed.) (Haynes, ed.)

In February. Routledge releases the second edition of the Routledge Handbook 9781138826991of Religion and Politics, edited by Jeffrey Haynes (London Metropolitan University). The publisher’s description follows:

From the United States to the Middle East, Asia and Africa, religion continues to be an important factor in political activity and organisation. The second edition of this successful handbook provides the definitive global survey of the interaction of religion and politics.

Featuring contributions from an international team of experts, it examines the political aspects of all the world’s major religions, including such crucial contemporary issues as religious fundamentalism, terrorism, the ‘war on terror’, the ‘clash of civilizations’, the Arab Spring, and science and religion. Each chapter has been updated to reflect the latest developments and thinking in the field, and new chapters such as ‘Postsecularism and international relations’ and ‘Securitization and Secularization: The two pillars of state regulation of European Islam’ have been added to ensure the book is a comprehensive and up-to-date resource.

Four main themes addressed include:

  • World religions and politics
  • Religion and governance
  • Religion and international relations
  • Religion, security and development

References at the end of each chapter have been overhauled to guide the reader towards the most up-to-date information on various topics. This book is an indispensable source of information for students, academics and the wider public interested in the dynamic relationship between politics and religion.

Lehmann, “Religious NGOs in International Relations”

In February, Routledge will release Religious NGOs in International Relations: 9781138856356The Construction of “the Religious” and “the Secular”, by Karsten Lehmann (International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – Vienna). The publisher’s description follows:

Over the last 30 years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become increasingly present in international discourses and active in international decision-making. Among the estimated several million NGOs in existence today, an increasingly visible number of organizations are defining themselves in religious terms – referring to themselves as “religious”, “spiritual”, or “faith-based” NGOs. This book documents the initial encounters between the particularly international segment of those organizations and the UN while at the same time covering the Protestant and Catholic spectrum that dominated the early years of their activities in the UN-context.

This book focuses on the construction of the human rights discourse inside two religiously affiliated organizations: The Commissions of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) and Pax Romana (IMCS / ICMICA). These organizations have been formally accredited as NGOs by the UN, label themselves as religious, and look back upon a long and intense cooperation with the UN. Lehmann presents material from the archives of those two organizations that has so far rarely been used for academic analysis. In doing so, as well as documenting the encounters between those organizations and the UN, and looking at the Protestant and Catholic spectrum, the book provides new insights into the very construction of the notions of ‘the religious’ and the ‘secular’ inside those organizations.

This work will be of great interest to all students of religion and international relations, and will also be of interest to those studying related subjects such as global institutions, comparative politics and international politics.

Movsesian on Moyn on Christian Human Rights

For those who are interested, my review of Samuel Moyn’s new book, Christian Human Rights, is now available on the First Things website (subscription required). Here’s a sample:

Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Harvard University, makes a provocative claim: Human rights, the foundational principle of global, secular progressivism, originated as the project of Christian conservatives in the mid-twentieth century. During and immediately after World War II, these Christians—Moyn is concerned principally with European Catholics, but he also discusses American Protestants—appropriated the Enlightenment’s concept of human rights and transformed it into its opposite.

The Enlightenment had advanced the rights of man. The modern state was commissioned to secure these rights and break the power of a reactionary Church. In the postwar period, however, Christian thinkers and politicians such as Pope Pius XII, Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, Robert Schuman, John Foster Dulles, and others captured the language of human rights, particularly the concept of human dignity. The post-Christian totalitarianisms of the twentieth century gained control of powerful nation states, trampling individual liberties and suffocating civil society. For Christian Democratic movements in Europe, human rights became the favored instrument for criticizing these ideologies and limiting the power of the modern secular state. It was a remarkable act of intellectual jujitsu.

Human Rights As a Religion

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Roger Scruton

Check out this superb essay on the Heritage website by philosopher Roger Scruton (left), “The Future of European Civilization: Lessons for America.” There’s much to ponder, but I’d like to focus on just one point. Scruton argues that “Human Rights” has replaced Christianity as the religion of Europe’s elites.

Human Rights purports to provide a grounding for morality and social order—what Christianity used to do. The problem, Scruton says, is that Human Rights is itself without foundation and therefore cannot play the role people wish to assign it:

“If you ask what religion commands or forbids, you usually get a clear answer in terms of God’s revealed law or the Magisterium of the church. If you ask what rights are human or natural or fundamental, you get a different answer depending on whom you ask, and nobody seems to agree with anyone else regarding the procedure for resolving conflicts.

“Consider the dispute over marriage. Is it a right or not? If so, what does it permit? Does it grant a right to marry a partner of the same sex? And if yes, does it therefore permit incestuous marriage too? The arguments are endless, and nobody knows how to settle them.…

“We are witnessing, in effect, the removal of the old religion that provided foundations to the moral and legal inheritance of Europe and its replacement with a quasi-religion that is inherently foundationless. Nobody knows how to settle the question whether this or that privilege, freedom, or claim is a “human right,” and the European Court of Human Rights is now overwhelmed by a backlog of cases in which just about every piece of legislation passed by national parliaments in recent times is at stake.”

It’s an important point, and Scruton makes it with his usual grace and insight. He’s correct that the left often talks about Human Rights as though it were a kind of religion and, in fact, an improvement on the old faith. For example, in his recent book, Christian Human Rights, which I review in the current issue of the magazine, First Things, Harvard scholar Samuel Moyn compares Human Rights with Christianity, and concludes that Human Rights has the potential to do a superior job in improving people and making the world a more moral place.

Scruton is right, too, that competing understandings of Human Rights exist, and that they lead to different practical results in some cases. For example, a Catholic understanding, based on an objective conception of human nature and human dignity, does not allow for same-sex marriage as a human right. By contrast, the dominant secular understanding, based on the value of subjective choice, does. In the contemporary West, the latter view dominates. In the global context, however, it’s not so clear. In addition to the Catholic understanding, there are also Islamic and Orthodox Christian conceptions of human rights that differ markedly from the secular, subjective version—as well from each other.

The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) famously avoided these debates. Philosophical agreement would be unnecessary, they thought, as long as nations signed up for the basic idea of human rights. Besides, nations would always retain some discretion in applying the so-called “universal” rights in the context of their own cultures. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore debates about the grounding for human rights now, and aside from the power of office – “we control international human rights organizations and you don’t”– there doesn’t seem a clear way to resolve them.

Nonetheless, Scruton overstates his case a bit. It’s true that there is much disagreement about Human Rights at the global level. But within Europe? I wonder whether the absence of agreement on particular cases makes today’s commitment to Human Rights all that different, as a practical matter, from yesterday’s commitment to Christianity. It’s not like Christians have always agreed among themselves on what Christianity requires for law and politics, either. (See: The Protestant Reformation). May Christians divorce and remarry? May they use artificial contraception? Some Christian communions say yes, others no. Do these disagreements mean Christianity is useless as a means of ordering society? I wouldn’t think so. Besides, even if one disagrees with it, there is a consistent European Court jurisprudence on many human-rights questions.

I suppose the response would go something like this. Fundamentally, Human Rights – at least, the dominant secular version – denies the basis for any objective truth claims. So there’s no way to resolve any issue, other than deferring to individual subjectivity, which is no basis for a legal system. It’s not a matter of a few difficult cases here and there, but the whole run of possible cases. Without a commitment to some objective value, something other than individual choice, the whole system will ultimately collapse.

I’ll need to think about this more. Whatever your view, Scruton’s essay is, as always, profound, elegant, and thought provoking.